James Lawton: Nicholls’ golden touch
As the big beasts prepare to parade, there is no shortage of candidates for man of a mighty week of sport. But who will it be?
Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United is plainly more than ever before football’s man of destiny but will his nemesis, Jose Mourinho of Internazionale, steal in with another ambush and freshly strident claims that English football is impoverished by the loss of his genius?
Could it be that Guus Hiddink of Chelsea will offer more evidence of his restorative powers with another Chelsea triumph against Juventus? Has Rafa Benitez the means for at least one more European coup with victory over Real Madrid, an iconic scalp which would be full of meaning for the brooding Madrileno? Is the alchemy of Arsène Wenger truly working again as he takes Arsenal to Roma?
Fascinating questions, all of them, but here, in this week of all weeks, it is not so easy to ignore another candidate and another game. How does Paul Nicholls of Manor Farm stables, Ditcheat in Somerset, sound? Sweetly enough, no doubt to all those who each March fall under the spell of the Cheltenham Festival.
The 46-year-old Nicholls, who for some time has been the supreme trainer of National Hunt horses, is happy to apply to his work the latest scientific methods, but his ultimate strength is the one he shares with the best of his breed.
It was ascribed to Lester Piggott by the great trainer Sir Noel Murless, who declared: “What happens between Lester and a horse is a mystery known only to the horse, Lester — and God.”
Yet if Nicholls enjoys that mystical touch, with three Gold Cup winners, three clean strikes at the greatest steeplechase of them all, he has long separated himself from the tendency of racing to surround itself in clouds of intrigue.
Nicholls is as open as his broad West Country face. If there was any doubt about this it dissolved, gloriously, this time last year when he saddled the two outstanding candidates for the Gold Cup, defending champion and national hero, Kauto Star, and the new powerhouse, Denman.
There were two extraordinary aspects to his decision to bestow National Hunt racing with a contest that promised to be one for the ages, something to conjure the deeds of Arkle and Dawn Run. One was that two such brilliant candidates should emerge from the same stable — “a bit like sending two express trains to the same station at the same time,” said one racing insider — in pursuit of the great prize. The other was that Nicholls could scarcely have been more candid about the outcome. The smart money, he suggested, was on Denman.
This year Kauto Star will run with sharply restored optimism as Denman fights to shake off the effects of injury. For Nicholls it would be another stunning triumph but, in the opinion of the cognoscenti, not his masterstroke. This will unfold again, surely, when Master Minded defends the crown in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Last year the horse swept home with 19 lengths to spare, a staggering performance from an animal that arrived at Ditcheat with plenty of talent in all but the fundamental one of clean jumping. Last year Master Minded was a 3-1 second favourite. This year the price is 1-3. Mike Dillon, racing guru and chief odds-maker for Ladbrokes, sees the challenge facing Master Minded as the equivalent of taking a penalty-kick. “It also helps,” he adds, “that there is no goalkeeper around.”
The Cheltenham action, and Nicholls’ involvement, will be followed by no one more closely than Ferguson, and most intensely, no doubt, just a few hours before he goes into the ring again with Mourinho tomorrow.
Nicholls sends the football man’s What A Friend into the RSA Chase – disappointingly for Ferguson not in the company of Ruby Walsh, who has chosen to ride the favourite Cooldine — with an approach that he knows mirrors the one developed at Old Trafford.
Nicholls spent some time with Ferguson recently, and he reports: “It was awesome. We went to a match, watched training, met some of the players and saw the facilities.
So much of what they do is similar to what we do. Ferguson’s enthusiasm for winning is incredible, but it’s also getting everyone around him to share that enthusiasm.”
Nicholls has something of an edge over his friend in that last respect because, whatever new glory comes to him this week, the master of Old Trafford will not need to be told that the rejoicing is unlikely to spread across the nation.
A beautiful victory by Kauto Star will know no such restraint. A hero of Cheltenham, as always, will cross all borders.
And, we have to believe, make his trainer the true man of the week. Mourinho?
It’s no way, Jose — not this week.